Tuning Dials and Channel Knobs: Retro Tech

I grew up in the world of analog electronics;   I’ve always loved knobs and dials.  And I found out I like photographing them.  They’re nice examples of Mid Century Modern design, and symbols of the popular culture and music of our past. And they just look cool.

Until the 1970s,  visual designs of radios and TVs came from artists, not corporate focus groups.  Manufacturers wanted new models that looked like advanced technology in the style of tomorrow. The shapes, lines and colors were elements of graphic design; the functionality was embodied in 2  impressive control knobs: volume, and tuning

The tuning dial had power.  By turning it  you cruised through the world of now –  today’s news, music and entertainment.   The “stations” you encountered might be hundreds of miles apart, the programming could have originated anywhere.  This vast reality was accessed via a plastic disc a few inches across; you were a pilot,  the dial was your control panel.

That dial had to have style.  The 50s and 60s were the Space Age, so the style was rockets, jet fighters, flying saucers and atomic energy – the coolest stuff of the time. The dial was also be a place to advertise some hot new features of this year’s model – for example, the number of transistors. 

Radio dials covered the AM band and, maybe, FM.  AM was for ordinary people listening in cars, kitchens, gas station and diners; FM was for the upper class,  who ate in nice places, listened to sophisticated music and didn’t want to be annoyed by static. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/vintage-am-radio-dial-jim-hughes.html

For TVs, the spectrum of content was quantized as a set of “channel” numbers from 2 through 13 – of which maybe four actually delivered anything, and one of those was spotty.  (What happened to channel 1? Nobody’s talking. ) Later TVs included the mysterious “UHF” position;  it sent you into a parallel universe of Ultra High Frequencies, where fuzzy images faded in and out amid a roar of static.

Those numbers became part of your life. A favorite show wasn’t on WCCO, it was on Channel 4. You knew which channels “came in good” and which were never quite right no matter how much tin foil you put on the rabbit ears. And you knew the sound of changing channels: ka-chunk… ka-chunk… ka-chunk…

I also like to remember the great post-war manufacturers behind these products – names like Philco, Magnavox, Sylvania, RCA, GE….

I pick up a new dial or knob on Ebay every now and then. I think eventually I’ll combine them into a piece of wall art for my bar downstairs. They’re just cool.

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